White Coats v. Bow Ties
- Jacopo della Quercia by James Beck
Columbia, 598 pp, $109.50, February 1992, ISBN 0 231 07200 7
- Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel by Robin Richmond
Barrie and Jenkins, 160 pp, £18.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 7126 5290 6
- Rembrandt. The Master and his Workshop: Paintings by Christopher Brown, Jan Kelch and Pieter van Thiel
Yale, 396 pp, £35.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 300 05149 2
- Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Science of Attribution by Alexander Perrig
Yale, 299 pp, £35.00, June 1991, ISBN 0 300 03948 4
- Michelangelo and his Drawings by Michael Hirst
Yale, 128 pp, £14.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 300 04391 0
- The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation by James Saslow
Yale, 559 pp, £22.50, April 1991, ISBN 0 300 04960 9
Jacopo della Quercia was one of the great sculptors of the early 15th century, comparable in stature with his contemporaries Donatello and Ghiberti, but his work is less consistent, and more difficult to discuss in the stylistic terms usually associated with Renaissance art. There are three famous works by Jacopo: the tomb of Ilaria del Caretto in Lucca, the doorway of San Petronio in Bologna and the reliefs and statues of the Fonte Gaia, the municipal fountain that originally stood opposite the town hall in Siena.
Although neither San Petronio nor the Fonte Gaia reflects much interest in the antique Roman architecture, ornament and figure style that so absorbed leading Florentine sculptors at the time, the tomb chest on which the effigy of Ilaria lies is carved with nude boys supporting swags of fruit – the first true putti of modern European art, imitated from Roman sarcophagi. Perhaps, indeed, the sculptor had been asked to imitate just such a sarcophagus. In that period in Tuscany it was highly prestigious to use an ancient sarcophagus for a tomb and perhaps none of the right size was available. The effigy would not originally have been placed directly above this frieze of putti. Nevertheless, the contrast between the alert pagan children and the sleeping Christian wife must always have been striking, although not in James Beck’s view.
Ilaria, Beck concedes, ‘may look “Gothic” ’ – as if we were about to claim that she actually was Gothic. Indeed, her narrow, high-collared dress, belted below the breast, with long curving folds falling from belt to feet is Gothic – but, who knows, she might be less so if she took it off. She looks especially Gothic from above, but this cannot have been the view which we were expected to take and so Beck excludes shots looking down at her from his otherwise comprehensive photographic survey. The sweeping lines on the effigy of Ilaria to which Beck thinks we must not pay too much attention are also evident, however, in the Madonna and Child that Jacopo carved for Ferrara at a slightly earlier date. Here they lighten the massive folds of cloak over the Virgin’s knees and give a spring to the pose of the Child who stands on her lap. Even the little pointed shoe which emerges from the Virgin’s skirts and the curls of the Christ’s hair participate in this linear pattern. All the same, the composition is severely architectonic – ‘almost oppressively frontal’, Beck observes.
In the Trenta altarpiece which Jacopo carved in Lucca after completing Ilaria’s tomb, the figures are incorporated in an architectural framework which can only be described as Gothic and are integrated with it to an extraordinary degree: the draperies flow like the fat foliage crockets which wind up the ogee canopies, and the draperies above the Virgin’s head in the central niche form an ogival arch. The elongated figures are bonelessly elastic and have wrists which are flamboyantly unanatomical in their flexibility. Beck admits that there are ‘insistent “Gothic” signs’ here, but he will not remove the inverted commas and tries to deny the vertical character of the figures, asserting that they ‘give the impression of resting stably on a horizontal axis within an implied spatial context’. But there clearly is no sense of repose, no stability and little if anything is implied in the way of space. Beck, unhappy with this ‘indecisive stylistic interlude’, suggests that Jacopo is ‘groping’ and ‘puzzled’. But we are left suspecting that Beck is the one who is groping and puzzled – by the very fact that Jacopo is so decisively Gothic.
Gothic has come to be regarded as the old-fashioned style that was rejected by the progressive Renaissance. Beck wants to avoid this dichotomy but his method of denial is a mode of recognition. The Gothic of the Trenta altarpiece may have come to seem less progressive, but this should be irrelevant to our sense of its merits. When Beck discusses the Fonte Gaia (which survives only in disagreeably weathered fragments misleadingly reassembled under shelter) he exaggerates the degree to which the figures in their broad niches (pointed architecture was inappropriate for so horizontal a composition) are ‘massive, monumental, space-occupying and space-defining’. This is unmistakable art-historical code for ‘progressive in the spirit of Masaccio’, but Jacopo’s monumentality simply wasn’t space-defining in the new Florentine way.
While denying the Gothic element in Jacopo’s work Beck has no trouble acknowledging the elements in his style which could more fairly be regarded as old-fashioned – radically conservative or fundamentally reformist. His debt to the sculpture of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano falls into this category. And so, too, does the debt which his narrative reliefs, especially those at San Petronio, owe to repoussée silver reliefs (a point first made by Baroni in 1956). Much of the work in precious metal from this period has been melted down, but it was the most prestigious form of sculpture. In these reliefs the metal was beaten and punched out from the back: any sense of receding space is rare, and a certain ambiguity of plane is common; rounded projections and tubular drapery folds are preferred to hollows. Here, however, as all too frequently in his book. Beck is hampered by the unfortunate decision not to include any illustrations of work other than Jacopo’s own.
Although Jacopo cannot easily be described as a ‘progressive’ his sculpture was later singled out for special praise by Michelangelo. While it is possible that Michelangelo exaggerated the degree of his esteem precisely because Jacopo had been neglected, his admiration was surely genuine. Michelangelo’s lack of interest in pictorial space, in perspective recession (as distinct from the foreshortening of the human form) and in the incidentals of landscape setting distinguished him from his contemporaries. Jacopo’s narrative reliefs at Bologna reveal a similar lack of interest in the representation of space: aerial and linear perspective are almost entirely absent. In the Nativity scene, for instance, the Virgin reclining after childbirth, the ox and the ass, the Christ child, even the hillside all seem to press forward, out of the relief.
The blunt, almost clumsy force of Jacopo’s finest reliefs, in which the figures have drastically simplified features and the men especially have large powerful hands, may well also have appealed to Michelangelo, as would the almost fleshy thickness of Jacopo’s drapery even at its most Gothic – a plasticity most evident in the ‘thick, abundant, but never ponderous or confining material’ which envelops the Virgin above the door of San Petronio. Michelangelo would have studied this sculpture when he worked in Bologna and Beck feels that his Bruges Madonna – a ‘tiny’ marble, as he inexplicably describes it – might be considered as a ‘homage’ to Jacopo’s.
Jacopo seems to have been far more accomplished as a carver than as a modeller. Michelangelo was also more attracted by carving and his reluctance to create full-size preparatory models for his marbles, or, at the very least, his willingness to ignore them, may explain the failure of some of his sculptures. A similar reluctance might explain why Jacopo’s relief for the Baptismal Font in Siena is so poor. Beck wonders whether he had ‘technical setbacks, for as far as we know he had not worked in bronze since ... 1401, more than a quarter of a century earlier’, but it would have been unusual for a sculptor to play any part in the casting, and the problem may simply have been that Jacopo had no aptitude for shaping clay or wax models for the founder. The poor quality of the reliefs carved on the doorway of San Petronio by Jacopo’s assistants might also be explained by his failure to supply them with clay models to follow.
In addition to the main text, Beck supplies a full catalogue of della Quercia’s sculpture and a valuable collection of documents which is accompanied by a highly polemical commentary. Some of the discussion about what is or is not by Jacopo’s ‘personal chisel’, as Beck quaintly puts it, is in the catalogue and there is a great deal on the order in which the San Petronio reliefs were carved. There are limits to the information that can be extracted from these documents: even if it is true that a lintel is likely to have been erected at the same date as the corbels supporting it, as Beck argues, the sculpture need not have been finished by then – external stone carving was frequently executed from scaffolding.
In the catalogue entry for the San Petronio reliefs Beck repeats objections he has already made following the cleaning of the reliefs more than ten years ago: they now ‘have a flatter, more two-dimensional effect than before the intervention’ and there is a loss of harmony, because the portions which were in poor condition could not be cleaned as thoroughly. Moreover, ‘layers of film, probably combined with original and later protective applications, perhaps including wax, have all been removed leaving the sculptures relatively defenceless.’ I am unable to answer the last allegation, and although I have some sympathy with his other charges they are not necessarily relevant to the two chief questions which should be asked before undertaking to clean and conserve a work of art. First, will it be good for the work – will it improve its chances of survival? Second, will it enable us to see the work more clearly as the artist intended – will it be closer to its original condition?
There can be no doubt that the sense of depth in outdoor relief sculpture, and indeed in architecture, can be enormously enhanced by filth and weathering. A particularly striking example of this is the First World War monument to the Royal Artillery Regiment by H. Sargent Jagger at Hyde Park Corner. Before the monument was cleaned the more salient portions of the relief carvings of trench warfare, in Portland stone whitened by rain and exposure, contrasted with the hollows, which were dark with soot as well as shadow. The traces of the claw chisel were dramatised, rather as the lines of the plough are more striking when there is a light fall of snow. We know from photographs (and common sense) that the sculpture did not look like this when new and cannot claim that Jagger was likely to have anticipated the effect. Moreover, soot was an agent in the deterioration of the stone.
Beck was taken to court by the conservators of Jacopo della Quercia’s monument to Ilaria del Caretto because he alleged that they had ruined the sculpture. He won the case but there is more agreement that he had a right to his opinion than that his opinion was right. Here, too, there is the problem of patina. Certain types of surface wear can be exceedingly attractive. It is sometimes legitimate not to want works of art to look younger than they are. Nor is it desirable to submit works of art to intensive treatment without good reason. If there is good reason, however, conservators would be better advised to attend to the evidence supplied by laboratory scientists and archival historians rather than consult today’s ‘man of taste’ or today’s artist, however passionately sure the latter may be that they understand what they love. Polychrome medieval sculpture is a case in point. The people who loved it most in the relatively recent past, the connoisseurs who collected it and the artists who were inspired by it, were attached to the look of old oak and assumed that the sculptors who worked in this material valued it in the same way. So conservators were instructed to strip off all colouring – not just the new uppermost layers. It was the historians and the scientists, peering at account books in the archives and at fragments of pigment under the microscope, who put a stop to this barbarism.
Despite the case for polychrome sculpture, it is often supposed that destructive ‘restoration’ – stripping everything off – was initiated by the men in white coats against the advice of the men in bow ties. And it has to be admitted that such destruction was often the responsibility of much-vaunted scientific techniques and remedies. A few medieval effigies in this country have been damaged by dilettante vicars brightening them up with enamel paint, and a great many have been damaged by rising damp or leaking roofs, but there are also some which have been destroyed by silicone treatment, recommended within living memory by leading experts on stone restoration. Archaeologists now deeply regret the chemical and electrochemical cleaning of ancient metal pioneered by Friedrich Rathgen in the laboratory attached to the Royal Museum in Berlin early this century, as it has destroyed all evidence of the original surface treatment of some of the finest bronze sculptures. Today, however, reversibility of treatment is a widely accepted principle, or rather ideal.
The most complicated and interesting issue is one of tact and presentation. Do you remove from an ancient Roman marble bust a nose which was given to it in the 18th century? Do you carefully reconstruct all the losses in an old painting, or do you do so while at the same time ensuring that on close examination the modern work is apparent? Given that chemical changes may irreparably alter some colours in a painting (a red lake fading away, a copper resinate green turning brown), it is possible that the removal of a discoloured varnish will create a discordant effect which outweighs the advantages of returning some portions to their original condition. There is surely no one correct approach for conservators to take. There is one strong argument for consistency, however – familiarity. That is the basis of our capacity to ignore a new nose on an old bust, or to cease to worry about the absence of any nose, or to be reconciled to the disjunction between a cleaned relief and a neighbouring uncleaned one.
It might be helpful to consider whether looking at an old painting or sculpture is more akin to reading ancient poetry or to hearing it read: in the former case a gap where a word is missing might be acceptable, in the latter a replacement would be essential. The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether. But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.
The restoration campaign which has caused the most concern in the last decade has been that of the Sistine ceiling (Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican were cleaned without any fuss at all). The Vatican’s restorers have been open about their methods, and when controversy began (with artists demonstrating) they allowed themselves to be scrutinised by independent experts – some of them ferociously conservative – and secured their approval. However, opposition was not silenced. The most sustained polemic against the restoration was Alessandro Conti’s Michelangelo e la pittura a fresco (1986), which was echoed by several newspaper articles in this country. I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.
Robin Richmond’s Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel is a popular introduction which will rightly enrage anyone who has been alarmed. ‘I grew up in Rome and was so familiar with Michelangelo that I never questioned whether his work looked now as it had in his own day,’ she writes. ‘I took it for granted that one could hardly make out the figures on Michelangelo’s ceiling, so deeply were they hidden in dark shadow.’ This nonsense is supported by some distorted illustrations. In fact, most figures on the ceiling were easily discernible and I admired them on many occasions without it ever occurring to me that they were seriously obscured, although I was aware that they were dirty – painfully aware of it after the 15th-century frescos on the walls of the chapel had been cleaned. Richmond concedes that in some of the photographs taken of the ceiling when it was newly cleaned in 1986 the colours appear harsh and artificial, unlike the ‘brilliant and extremely accurate photographs’ in her own book – some of which are as bad as any I have seen, vibrating with the hot pinks, icy blues, lime greens and incandescent yellows of cheap confectionery. The colours used by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling can only be understood if we bear in mind that they were intended to be seen without the electric light with which they are now, for photographic purposes, flooded. New light is as distorting in its way as old varnish.
The controversy centres on the question of whether a layer which has been removed was a glue which was applied more than a century after Michelangelo painted the ceiling in order to consolidate it and which had become discoloured (as claimed by the conservators) or a ‘grey layer’ applied by the artist himself to tone down the strong colours (as claimed by the opponents of the restoration). The evidence of microscopic examination (showing dirt below the layer) and the historical evidence (Michelangelo was a fierce advocate of ‘true fresco’ in which all the colours were applied to the wet plaster) weigh strongly against seeing this layer as part of the original work. Condivi reports in his Life of Michelangelo that he had not been able to apply the ultima mano (‘last touches’) to part of the ceiling, but this would be an odd way to describe sweeping a layer of grey over the entire surface, and makes more sense as a reference to small areas of gilding. Condivi’s point, in any case, was that Michelangelo had not applied these last touches. Furthermore, contemporary marginal annotations made by someone close to Michelangelo suggest that the whole passage is a misunderstanding.
Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15th-century Florentine panel paintings. Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes. It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.
Thanks to the highly successful exhibition held recently in Berlin, Amsterdam and London, and the numerous articles in the press which it stimulated, there is widespread awareness that the list of paintings accepted as being by Rembrandt has greatly diminished over the last thirty years and is now being cut still more drastically by a team of experts using more scientific methods. For example, the noble painting of an old man with his hand on his head, which the National Gallery acquired amid much fanfare in 1957 from the Duke of Devonshire (‘by application of the 1956 Finance Act’), is now thought not to be by Rembrandt – for reasons cogently presented in the new edition of the catalogue of Dutch paintings in the collection. It is (just about) possible to imagine the relief which the painting must be feeling: no one will now be admiring it merely because of its label and there is little prospect of its having to participate in a punishing global tour.
This particular painting wasn’t part of the exhibition, which was confined to paintings previously thought to be by Rembrandt but now assigned to other artists. An impressive aspect of the re-evaluation of Rembrandt is the way in which it depends on the construction of a convincing body of work for the artists who imitated him or whose work has been confused with his. Some of the publicity given to Alexander Perrig’s book Michelangelo’s Drawing: The Science of Attribution presented him as engaged in a similar if more isolated campaign to reduce the number of genuine drawings by Michelangelo.
Rembrandt has been depicted – indeed he seems to have depicted himself – as a lonely genius, but he had many students and associates. Michelangelo really was a lonely genius, notoriously averse to delegating or to close collaboration: but he had many imitators. His most careful and finished drawings were copied in his own lifetime (notably by the famous miniaturist Giulio Clovio) and preparatory drawings, too, by him were said to have been forged before the end of the 16th century. Perrig believes that we must try to reconstruct the oeuvre of these imitators. Marcello Venusti, for instance, is known to have made paintings after Michelangelo’s finished compositional drawings, including those for the Crucifixion. Because one such painting by him deviates a little from surviving drawings by Michelangelo, Perrig concludes that it must have been prepared for in drawings by Venusti himself and – more oddly – that these drawings must be included among those now accepted as being by Michelangelo.
Some of these compositional drawings for the Crucifixion, among the strangest to have survived from the 16th century, consist of densely superimposed revisions to the shape and position of the figures and of the Cross itself. Although these drawings have excited some exaggerated enthusiasm it is hard to find Perrig’s irreverence refreshing: ‘A Cross swaying to and fro, a Christ with jerking limbs hanging onto it, a gaping John and a Madonna who in effect consists of a tangled clump of wool threads’. He does not wonder why such a completely unresolved drawing was preserved – unless it was by Michelangelo, in which case it would have been treasured as evidence of his tormented genius. In assigning it to Venusti, Perrig does not ask what evidence there is in Venusti’s documented work of restless, self-destructive revision – nor does he concede that Michelangelo’s late sculpture possesses precisely this quality.
Perrig sometimes starts out with an engagingly sensible suggestion. He proposes that we should take seriously the fact that Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young and beautiful Roman nobleman with whom Michelangelo fell in love and for whom he made a spectacular series of meticulously finished drawings with mythological (and cryptically allegorical) subjects – the Ganymede, Tityus, Fall of Phaeton and Children’s Bacchanal – was receiving some sort of artistic instruction from Michelangelo, and must have made drawings himself, some of which may have survived. From this sober start it is an amazing leap to the idea that the spectacular drawing of an androgynous head in the Royal Collection at Windsor, which may perhaps be an idealised portrait of Tommaso, is actually a self-portrait. This is a drawing of extraordinary quality and if a nobleman like Tommaso had drawn with anything like this ability someone would surely have said something about it. Perrig begins this book by mocking the way in which scholars have taken on trust that drawings are by Michelangelo. This, however, is not a preliminary to extreme caution on his own part. Far from it. Perrig is irresistibly reminiscent of the inmate of the lunatic asylum who shakes his head sadly over a fellow inmate who supposes himself to be Napoleon, only to declare that he knows his colleague to be deluded because he is himself the Emperor.
In his subtitle Perrig refers to the ‘science of attribution’. Anyone curious about the part which science has played in the reassessment of Rembrandt’s work should read Ernst van de Wetering’s essays in the catalogue of the recent Rembrandt exhibition: dendrochronology, the microscopic examination of canvas weaves, the analysis of ground layers and of pigments, examination by infra-red reflectography, X-radiography, neutron-activation autoradiography and their implications are all carefully explained. These techniques have advanced our understanding of Rembrandt’s art and that of his contemporaries but have not contributed any conclusive test enabling us to distinguish between them. ‘Science’ for Perrig merely represents an analytical process. We are laboriously introduced to the first principles as follows: ‘In both writing and drawing two different directional components are at work: a course component parallel to the drawing surface and a pressure component acting vertical to the drawing surface. Their interaction is the precondition for the creation of the stroke.’ In other words, you have to press down with an instrument as well as moving it up and down when you write or draw.
The analysis of shading and contour and so on which follows is hardly revolutionary. All that is new is the white coat which Perrig wears in order to distinguish himself from the mere ‘wine tasters’ and his pedantic isolation of orthography from any consideration of the forms which the artist represents, the powers of invention displayed, the purpose of the drawing and the medium employed. Even when practised by connoisseurs of drawing earlier this century – most notably Berenson – the attempt to define Michelangelo’s style ran into problems. It is not absurd to try to construct a systematic approach to the analysis of a drawing style but it would seem prudent to apply it first to a less versatile talent.
Very much less noise accompanied the publication of Michael Hirst’s elegantly written and succinctly argued Michelangelo and his Drawings, which is now established as a classic, essential reading for all serious students of the artist – and indeed for all serious students of Renaissance draftsmanship. Hirst has unrivalled knowledge of Michelangelo’s work as well as citing many neglected passages in letters to him, by him or about him, and pointing out previously unremarked passages in, or beneath, or on the back of drawings.
His book is structured around the different purposes for which Michelangelo made drawings – ‘Inventing the Motive’, ‘Composing the Storia’, ‘Figures’, ‘Buildings’, ‘The Making of Presents’. It is as attentive to the schematic pen-and-ink sketches of marble blocks made on poor paper as demonstrations for quarrymen, as it is to the highly-finished presentation drawings, such as the mysterious Children’s Bacchanal in the Royal Collection (one of the drawings made for Cavalieri), which is laboriously built up out of tiny touches of chalk, leaving untouched points of paper to serve as light, a technique which contemporaries must have admired. (They would have used a magnifying glass as they did to examine cameos carved in hardstones.)
Hirst pays careful attention to the medium of Michelangelo’s drawings and to their purpose but more unusually, and most valuably, he also considers the relation between the two. A drawing for a doorway in the library of San Lorenzo made in Florence in the 1520s is compared with a drawing made later for the Porta Pia in Rome, and the ‘stark austerity’ of the former is contrasted with the ‘rich colour’ and greater organic unity of the latter. Hirst notes that the difference is akin to that between Michelangelo’s early and late studies of the nude figure, but goes on to observe how ‘the limpid and relatively unvariegated washes and sharp profiles of the reading-room design agree very well with the hard and clear forms of Tuscan pietra serena, whilst the softer, broader forms of the late drawing approximate to the textured building materials that Michelangelo employed in Rome, brick and travertine.’ The sensitivity both to the materials with which the drawings are made and those in which the designs were executed springs from a rare sympathy with every aspect of Michelangelo’s art.
James Saslow has published an annotated edition of the artist’s collected poetry with plain unrhymed verse translations. As he observes in his admirable introduction, other 16th-century Italian artists wrote poetry (Raphael, Cellini and Bronzino) but it meant far more to Michelangelo, and his verse was much admired by his contemporaries – indeed in Michelangelo’s own lifetime a lecture was delivered on one of his sonnets. Some of his poems are of direct biographical significance, almost verse letters: the famous sonnet on the discomforts of painting the Sistine ceiling, for example, and the later grotesque ‘I’sto rinchiuso come la midolla’, which expands on the pain of urinating (caused by the kidney stones which afflicted him in the late 1540s), on the irritations of partial deafness, on tinnitus (noted as early as 1518) and on the coincident congestion and constipation which, he imagines, would block the flight of the soul at both exits.
Other poems concern – or at least refer to – the technical processes of sculpture. The most famous of these in his lifetime was the sonnet
Non ha l’ ottimo artista alcun concetto
C’ un marmo sole in se non circonscriva
Col suo superchio ...
(‘Not even the best of artists has any conception / That a single marble block does not contain / Within its excess ...’) There is also a madrigal (No 153) written for Vittoria Colonna which is not about the carving of marble but about the casting of metal:
It’s not only the mould
That, empty of finished work, waits to be filled
With fired silver or gold,
And which these can only be drawn from when it’s shattered.
Similarly, he continues, burning love refills his inner void but enters through such narrow spaces – beauty enters through the eyes, as metal is poured through thin runners – that to draw her out he must be torn and broken. It is a complicated but powerful metaphor, and less bizarre than one at first supposes, since the Italian word for the core used in lost-wax casting is anima, or ‘soul’.
One of the first poems Michelangelo prepared for publication is about the goldsmith’s work:
Sol pur col foco il fabbro il ferro stende
Al concetto suo caro e bel lavoro,
Ne’ senza foco alcuno artista l’ oro
Al sommo grado suo raffina e rende.
(‘Only with fire can the smith shape iron’ / Form his conception into fine, dear work; / Neither, without fire, can any artist / Refine and bring gold to its highest state.’) The opening lines, with their internal rhymes, alliteration and enjambment suggest both the strenuous beating with hammers and awkward twisting with tongs at the forge, and are characteristic of Michelangelo’s poetry at its best, with its alarming colloquial directness and tightly-knotted thought reminiscent of Donne.
This emphasis on the goldsmith’s work might seem surprising, but gold, refinement and purgatorial fire were conventional poetic images – indeed conventional metaphors for poetry (Dante called Arnaut Daniel il miglior fabbro). In some respects 16th-century poems can seem like modern advertising copy. Showers of tears and arrows, dazzling eyes, mountain roads, and imprisoned souls recur with the frequency of floating hair, crashing surf and screeching tyres. The paradoxes of the bitter sweet, burning ice and living death are more central to human experience than hygienic farmhouse produce and detergent which is tough on dirt but kind to hands. On the other hand, the standard character, not only of the images but the ingenuities, must qualify any temptation to interpret such poems autobiographically.
When I’m driven away from and deprived of fire,
I’m compelled to die, where others survive and live;
For my only food is what flares up and burns,
And that which others die from, I need to live.
As Saslow explains, Michelangelo derives this image from a Petrarchan oxymoron: the salamander which was said to feed on death and live in flames. Saslow also notes that Michelangelo refers to Cavalieri in a letter as the food on which he lives, and we may also observe that images of consumption and burning are central to the drawings made for Cavalieri – the bird eating the bowels of Tityus, Phaeton falling from the burning sky, the children preparing to cook and eat the dead hind.
As Hirst observes, ‘the real parallel’ to the highly finished drawings which Michelangelo made as presents is the ‘love poetry, above all sonnets, works actuated by profound personal feeling’. All the same, that personal feeling ran within prescribed channels. As with Michelangelo’s work as an artist, a distressing amount of his poetry is fragmentary, and it displays a profound interest in the work of much earlier Italian art. Michelangelo’s respect for Jacopo della Quercia was, however, more unusual than his veneration for Dante or Petrarch.